Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021 - 60

After a storm, a dramatic
cloud-scape wreaths the
town of Fries. Each season
has its own distinct beauty.

bustling burg, until, in the late 1980s, time
and international competition caught up
with its obsolete infrastructure. When the
mill finally closed, in 1988, the houses already had been sold to the tenants . . . and
then working-age people slipped away
to places with jobs, leaving old folks and
empty buildings.
By the time Saul and I arrived, the
town consisted of an open expanse where
the mill once stood, plus a branch bank, a
post office, a Dollar General store, a café
and not much else besides clear skies and
the roar of the New River flowing over the
dam. The railway was torn up and eventually the rail bed became the New River
Trail State Park, a 57-mile-long wonderland with one terminus in Fries.
With so few people and so little commerce, social distancing was already here
as regulations took hold beginning in

March 2020, and for a while life went on
as before. True, the old community center closed for the duration, which meant a
pause in library services and in the weekly
old-time music jams.
Around April 2020 I noticed something
new. More lights were burning in the mill
houses, especially the " high end " cottages
fronting the New River. The reason: Owners of those cottages, many of which they
rent in summer, had deserted their city
homes and come to Fries for safety; it was
cheery to shout hello and wave to them
on their porches during evening strolls. As
spring wore on and schools closed, Saul
and I began to see families with children
bicycling along the New River trail . . . always smiling. People from nearby cities
had discovered Fries as a COVID-safe day
trip destination.
The local craft store-often closed-

Children as young as 8 worked in
the mill-hidden when inspectors
appeared-and some people went deaf
from the mechanized din.
60

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

was open regularly now as ladies sewed
face masks and made hand sanitizer . . . an
essential business. The café survived with
takeout. The town's riverside park got new
playground equipment and there was
room for people to spread out and enjoy
the scenery at sunset.
More significantly, by autumn For Sale
signs began sprouting in front of some
mill houses as people who had inherited
them but lived elsewhere opted for ready
cash. The pace of sales quickened. Young
families moved in-a swing set here, a
baby stroller there.
Then bigger things happened. Someone bought one of the long-empty storefronts and started work on an inn, and
rumor has it a " boutique " will come next.
Best of all, construction began on a big
covered farmers market where the rail depot once stood. There will be public restrooms and an outdoor stage for live performances.
New life took hold in Fries during pandemic just as many cities lost vigor. Love
and hope are the nutrients feeding this
turnaround. There are still some potholes,
and a few houses with broken windows
and caved-in roofs. But I don't notice
them. I'm focused on the views of progress.
Writer Nan K. Chase is the author of
" Asheville: A History, " and " Lost Restaurants
of Asheville. "


http://www.BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021

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Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021 - BRPG1
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